We've seen many designs for virtual speaker systems, and most televisions come with technology that claims to be able to produce surround sound virtually using built-in speakers. We've yet to find one that actually manages this convincingly, but most people don't want the hassle of several speakers and the necessary wire, so we continue to look for a good one-box solution.
Yamaha is the latest company to search for the Holy Grail, with its YSP-1100 box. Designed for 42-inch TVs, the YSP-1100 is available online for around AU$2300, but we've seen it as low as AU$2000 on special. A 32-inch version, the YSP-900, costs around AU$1500.
When the Yamaha YSP-1100 arrived, we were struck by its large size at a touch over 1m long. It's designed for 42-inch televisions -- for 32-inchers, buy the smaller (and cheaper) YSP-900. It's not ugly, although it is a little daunting, and we're pretty sure it won't appeal to every taste.
The YSP-1100 is essentially 42 speakers crammed into one unit. There are 40 small drivers that are used to push sound out in various directions -- this is what creates the surround sound effect from a single location. There are also two bass drivers, which help to deliver a nice, rich-sounding bass. The YSP-1100 uses its multiple speakers to create a number of 'beams'. These beams effectively replace the speakers in a 5.1 surround sound system by bouncing the sound off your rear and side walls.
A front grille covers all of the speakers, so you'll never get to see them. This grille covers the entire width of the unit, but beneath it there are a few basic controls for turning the unit on, selecting an input, and adjusting the volume. There is also a simple display, which keeps you informed about what mode you have the unit set to, and allows you to setup the system and increase the power to each sound beam.
The remote control is pleasant and easy to use. It also offers basic controls for other parts of your home cinema setup, such as DVD players and, of course, your TV.
Because every room is a different size and shape, the YSP-1100 will need to be setup to produce the best sound. There are two ways to do this. The first is to manually adjust the way the speakers project the sound. This is pretty complex, and will require the patience of a saint to do properly.
Thankfully, Yamaha also offers an automated method for installation. The unit comes with a microphone that you plug into a jack on the side of the unit. Then you hit the auto-setup and the speaker will play a series of test sounds. The sound is then received by the microphone, sent back to the system and it adjusts the sound projection to take advantage of your room.
Once you've got the system set up, you should be good to go. There are a number of modes on the YSP-1100 that allow you to customise the sound. For listening to movies you'll probably want to use the '5 Beam' mode, which produces five sound beams that bounce off the walls and produce the pseudo-surround sound effect. There are other modes for stereo sound and music.
There's also an incredibly cool feature called 'my beam' which is used for listening to TV late at night, when you don't want to disturb anyone. When you press and hold the 'my beam' button, there is a pause, followed by a noise. This noise is picked up by the remote control, which then tells the speaker system where you're sitting. The sound is then focused to that location. This process -- which also cuts the bass to virtually nothing -- means that you shouldn't disturb anyone. It's really very clever, and works surprisingly well.
Our first impression was that the YSP-1100 sounds pretty amazing. We hooked up a standard DVD player and popped on some of our regular test discs. The sound was incredibly clear and there was a decent amount of bass too, something we didn't expect from a device like this.
Playing Spider-Man on DVD yielded an impressive overall sound. There wasn't any point where we felt the speakers were struggling to keep up, and we didn't notice any bass distortion on low-frequency sound.
A quick flick through some THX and Dolby Digital proved that the Yamaha is skilled at moving the sound around the room. Compared to our reference two-channel stereo amp, with attached Denon speakers, the sound was much wider, and felt more dramatic.
That said, we never found ourselves totally convinced by the rear-channel effects. The front channels were very mobile, creating an engaging sound, but the YSP-1100 never quite managed to fool us into thinking there was much happening behind us. With a traditional surround-sound system and a movie such as Spider-Man, the rear channel would be alive with effects. This just wasn't the case in our test room.
In terms of clarity, we can't complain at all. Dialogue was very clear and well separated from the front left and right channels. For added impact, there is the option of adding a subwoofer to the system as well (*) -- although for most viewing, this would be unnecessary, as the YSP-1100 has great bass response.
The Yamaha YSP-1100 sits somewhere between a good set of stereo speakers and a proper surround-sound system. There will probably never be a virtual surround-sound system that sounds as convincing as real speakers placed behind you.
However, if you really can't cram six speakers or more into your TV room, this is as good as it gets. Crucially, the sounds from the YSP-1100 are some of the best we've heard in this category, easily beating the Sony RHT-G800 in the quality stakes, although you do pay for the privilege.
* Editor's note: this review was conducted by CNET UK -- the version that is sold locally includes a matching YST-SW225B 150W Advanced YST II, QD Bass subwoofer, valued at AU$699.